1. Lilith Addington
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    Lilith Addington Member

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    What are some Essential Elements for Horror Stories?

    Discussion in 'By the Genre' started by Lilith Addington, May 16, 2016.

    On a whim, I recently started writing some short horror stories. Since this is a genre I have never written in before, I'm wondering what some of the essential elements are. What do I need to convey to the reader? What do I need to do to make them scared? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. :) Thanks!
     
  2. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    The obstacle has to be stronger than the protagonist(s).

    Action is when you want the protagonist to fight the opposition because you want the protagonist to win, horror is when you don't want the protagonist to fight because you don't want the protagonist to lose.
     
  3. Ex Leper
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    I've been reading a lot of H. P. Lovecraft recently. His style of horror is based on fear of the unknown and fear of how inconsequential we actually are. His horror is the folly of the human ego. We are not the only thing in the universe; we are not even the strongest. We are like ants to what shakes and moves the universe. And the few humans who do see the truth, well... the fragile human mind struggles to grasp that and descends into madness and oblivion. We are nothing. Deal with it.
     
  4. tumblingdice
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    tumblingdice Member

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    What a coincidence, I've recently started to write horror too :). I've never read Stephen King or anything like that, so this is all new to me. Something I found online that I feel is working for me is to keep the fear element human. Think about very real things we all fear in everyday lives (as adults, of course), our worst nightmares coming true, and write about them. This will make your story relatable.
     
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  5. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    An escalating mood. Increased tension. multileveled fear. One fear for the situation the mc is in - sort of like in a zombie book - being chased by a pack of zombies is situational fear and then - overall fear. What if I become one of them, what if I lose my friends.
     
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  6. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Karen Woodward does an excellent job of breaking down horror stories in this article. I liked it so much, I incorporated it into my own personal science fiction/horror/comedy plot planner. My current WIP is based on what I came up with, partly based on Karen's article.
     
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  7. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Atmosphere is a key element in effective Horror. Atmosphere and presence of the unknown, now go scare the crap out of the kiddies. :supergrin:
     
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  8. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    You might find this vsauce video useful/interesting.



    It references a quote from King about three types of horror:

    “The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there.”

    However you feel about that breakdown there certainly are different kinds of horror and I think it's important to decide which one you want to go for before trying to figure out what's 'essential'. Are you trying to write something creepy and insidious that will make readers nervous about being alone in a room or looking out dark windows? Are you trying to make a horrific monster for them to shudder over? Do you want to prey on base fears like spiders and heights or find a way to make people scared of innocuous things like, I don't know, apples?

    There's a lot to explore with horror. I'd recommend watching/reading a lot of varieties of it to get some ideas of where you can go before you try to pin down a formula.
     
    Last edited: May 19, 2016
  9. newjerseyrunner
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    newjerseyrunner Contributing Member

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    Feeling alone and insufficient. Whether the character is physically alone or not, try to find some way to alienate them. I'm sure you know what book these plot points belong to:

    A NYC cop who hates water on a boat chasing a man eating shark with a crazy old sailor and the guy who's sleeping with his wife.

    A young tiny woman who's not even completed FBI training yet walking around a serial killers house in the dark while the FBI goes to the wrong house.

    A priest who's losing faith confronted by a demon in the body of an innocent little girl who's killed the other priest who's done this before.

    *shutters*
     
  10. Sack-a-Doo!
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    In my earlier post, I missed the question entirely. Rather than pointing to information about essential elements, the linked article I cited lists essential events.

    So, here are the essential elements for horror:
    • a monster,
    • a confined space,
    • a sin.
    That last one may seem irrelevant, but if you think about it, someone is always punished in a horror film (eaten or destroyed by the monster) for sins. In the teen slasher films, the sin is always sex.
     
  11. Mikmaxs
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    Something that I always want to see more of is clarity. Far, *far* too often, horror villains will be left with an ambigous set of powers and abilities that just leave me with frustrating questions. It *can* work, if that's what you're going for, but more often than not it's just a distraction.
    It's far better to show the audience what your bad guy can do *before* he needs to do it, because then, once the bad guy is ready to spring his trap, the audience will have actual tension, fear, and anxiety rather than a cheap jump scare.
     
  12. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Nothing is essential to horror besides an existential challenge. Readers of horror become fearful only if their comfortable, familiar view of the world and themselves is challenged. It doesn't really matter how, it's just that some methods are more effective than others.

    Some horror authors rely on supernatural entities to do this. H.P. Lovecraft really mastered this method, because he understood the value of keeping the monsters largely unexplained and/or unseen. Some people criticize his works for being too "out there"--always dealing with completely non-human, non-earthly phenomena--but that was the key. They're so far outside of human understanding or imagination that to consider the mere possibility of their existence inspires self-doubt, discomfort, and terror.

    Others, like John Fowles, ground their stories in reality to achieve a more insidious, inescapable terror. In The Collector, John Fowles presents us with a sympathetic psychopath--one driven by the human desire to be loved, one with hobbies and passions and emotions, one with a code of ethics--and shows us his gradual transformation into a brutal serial murderer as a result of his inability to really understand or feel compassion for other humans. Because this man seems so "normal" in most respects, because we see much more of him and of his life than just the violence he devolves into, we can then understand that this same sort of cycle could be developing in any number of the people we see in our everyday life and our own role into pushing that cycle forward. And that's terrifying (at least imo).

    Bottom line is if you want to scare your readers, you've got to present some challenge to their view of the world. All good horror authors use stylistic choices to help build suspense but they all build these stylistic choices on that foundation.
     
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  13. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Are you sure you're not thinking of thrillers rather than horror?

    In horror, we're dealing with monsters and they often aren't even shown in full until well into the second act (a lot of times, not even until the third) so spelling out their powers might be difficult, at least until the mentor character comes along. And often that isn't until after the second act is under way.

    Thrillers, on the other hand, deal mostly with Earth-bound bad guys like Hannibal Lecter and someone almost always knows right up front what they're capable of.
     
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  14. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Um, no offense, but I disagree.

    Horror is about fear. Thriller is about suspense. There's a lot of overlap there but if you were to make a distinction it wouldn't be along the lines of what type of villain you have or whether or not you can demonstrate their power to the reader. Plenty of horror novels (even those that deal with monsters) start to show the reader what their villain is capable of in the first act of the story. Plenty of thrillers leave off the revelation of the nature of the villain and his capabilities until the third act.

    The difference is whether the author hopes to build mainly suspense (what will happen next) or fear (this could happen next if that happens and I desperately hope it doesn't). Doesn't matter when the revelation happens, only what their target is.

    In Dracula (horror), we see Dracula's powers in the first 20% of the book. Yes, we learn more about it throughout the rest of the novel when van Helsing shows up and they start trying to kill the guy, but we know right away that he's powerful, dangerous, and non-human.

    In The Collector (thriller), we know that the villain is capable of morally questionable things (kidnapping, stalking) but Fowles actively prevents us from seeing any violence or brutality from the killer until the very end, deluding us (as the killer deludes himself and as the victim deludes herself) with the idea that he is incapable of it.

    So yeah sorry if it seemed like I went off on a rant there or anything, I just don't really agree with genre distinctions along those lines....
     
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  15. Mikmaxs
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    The example I always go to is The Shining, and I compare the book to the movie:
    In short, while both are good, the movie is *far* more terrifying in my opinion. We know exactly what our villain is capable of, because he's just an insane killer with an axe. The fear comes because while we know what he *could* do, we don't know what he *will* do. We have to watch him slip into madness as the hotel drives him mad, and pray that he can't kill his family before they escape. With one very minor exception, the Hotel can never directly influence anyone. It disorients them, it drives them mad, but it can't just go out and stab Danny itself.
    In the book, though, the Hotel's limitations and powers are never explained. At one point, the hedge animals are just able to attack Dick Halloran, and then there's a ghost woman who almost chokes Danny to death. It never explains why the hotel needs Jack Torrence to kill his family, since, y'know, the hotel could just do the job itself. It feels like the eldritch horror doesn't really give a shit what happens, or just isn't capable of doing some things for no reason when it can in other scenarios. The book can't surprise me, because anything that would otherwise be 'Surprising' instead just turns into 'Huh, I guess that happened, but I couldn't possibly have seen it coming, so whatever.'
     
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  16. Sack-a-Doo!
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    My bad, I misunderstood.

    I interpreted *before* he needs to do it as "we see the bad guy doing his most dastardly very close to the beginning of the story so we know exactly who's doing the horrible stuff right from the git-go."

    My entire previous response was based on this misunderstanding.
     
  17. Sack-a-Doo!
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    I was quoting someone else, so please feel free. :)

    I suppose one could also say that suspense is fear for the future (or fear of the future). So, in a way, it all comes down to fear in the end.

    Well, yes and no. A thriller (as defined by the marketplace) rarely incorporates elements of the supernatural whereas horror always does. If a person is straight up insane and isn't being influenced by an evil hotel or a Chucky doll or whatever, that's a thriller. Throw in the evil influence (supernatural force) and it's horror.

    But one could also argue that horror incorporates the 'thrill' from thriller because up until van Helsing somes along, we only know what Dracula is doing, not that he's an undead fiend. Up ’til that point, we're afraid for the future. After, we're horrified. (in theory, anyway)

    Good point. In both types of story, though, we need to see the after effects of the villain's blood lust (or whatever) early on or there's no reason to keep reading. Either that, or it needs to be foreshadowed so we at least half-expect what's going to happen when the deed is finally done.

    No worries. I've never written horror or thriller stories, so I'm no expert. Most of the opinions I've formed about these genres comes from extensive reading, in trying to find the genre I could best write. So, if we have to blame anyone, let's make it Stephen King, Blake Snyder and several others I've lost track of. :)
     
  18. taariya
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    Maybe supernatural invokes a different image in your mind than in mind. When I think "supernatural" I think something that Stephen King at his worst might cook up--something without subtlety, ambiguity, or ability to scare readers. What I'm trying to express is that while all horror includes some ambiguity surrounding the villain (are they of this world? are they human? if they are human, are they a normal fully functioning human?), a lot of horror novels don't have outright supernatural creatures (i.e. vampires or goo monsters or whatever). For

    I agree that the popularity of people like Stephen King has had a big (and in my opinion negative) influence on the definition of horror. Gross.
     

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